They came to promote a film showing how millions of artworks were rescued and returned to their rightful owners after plunder by the Nazis. But George Clooney, Bill Murray and Matt Damon left implying that Britain, too, needed to have a long, hard, look at itself.
On Tuesday, the Hollywood actors became embroiled in one of the fiercest of all heritage controversies: should the Elgin marbles, removed from the Parthenon 200 years ago, be housed in London or in Athens?
At the National Gallery, Clooney repeated his belief that it would be a good thing if the British Museum gave the 2,500-year-old sculptures back to Greece. He was backed by Murray, who said they had had “a very nice stay here” but now should be returned.
The actors joined a dispute which has simmered ever since enormous chunks of the Parthenon’s statuary were removed by Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, in the early 19th century.
Later bankrupt, Elgin sold them to the British government for the equivalent of US$58,200 and they made their way to the British Museum, where they have remained a star attraction ever since.
In Berlin, on Saturday, while promoting his new movie The Monuments Men — based on the second world war platoon which rescued and returned thousands of artworks stolen by the Nazis — Clooney said it would be “very nice” if the marbles went back to Greece.
In London yesterday, the question was put to him again. “I did a little research just to make sure I wasn’t completely out of my mind,” he said.
Slipping on pronunciation, he added: “Even in England the polling is in favor of returning the marbles from the Pantheon [sic], the Pantheon marbles.”
Clooney said the Vatican and the Getty museum, in Los Angeles, had returned parts of the Parthenon and suggested the question was whether a piece of broken-up art should be put back together as best as possible. In this case returning them was “probably the right thing to do.” The actor said it was suggested over the weekend that because he was an American he probably didn’t understand. “That’s probably right,” he deadpanned.
Damon chipped in: “That can’t always be the British default position. I mean seriously, it’s not actually an argument to say we are Americans we don’t get it.”
Clooney added: “I do think it’s worth having an open discussion.”
His view was backed though by Murray, who plays one of the Monuments Men.
Murray said: “It seems like it’s a problem all over the world. Who owns this art? Where it came from? Do they have the right to give it back? I think it has had a very nice stay here, certainly. London’s gotten crowded, there’s plenty of room back there in Greece, plenty of room. England can take a lead on this kind of thing ... letting art go back where it came from.”
Would Clooney visit the British Museum to look at the marbles? The problem was time, he said, as they were due to leave for Paris that evening “to somehow insult the Parisians, something about the Mona Lisa and Italy.”
In Greece, reaction to Clooney’s support was as swift as it was effusive. With the return of “Elgin’s loot” the single biggest priority on the arts agenda of the tourist-reliant country, the culture minister, Panos Panagiotopoulos, penned a two-page letter to the actor expressing the “heartfelt thanks of all Greeks.”
He wrote: “Returning these pillaged masterpieces to where they belong on the Parthenon would be fair and nice ... not only because they belong to the history of Greek civilization, but because through our history they illuminate world civilization.”